The Badwater Gospel opens with a bit of literal gallows humor. In his jailhouse journal, convicted murderer Langdon Dorsey looks out his cell window and only thanks one group in his acknowledgements—the termites that destroyed the gallows he was supposed to swing from.
Touches of such humor are rare in this quirky Western where card shark and con man Lang Dorsey arrives in the Montana town of Badwater while impersonating a Baptist Minister. He’s accompanied by 18 year old Paris Miller who’s pretending to be his daughter, a beauty Dorsey falls in love with as the two fornicate all over Montana in the winter of 1887.
Mainly told in a series of first-person journal entries, Magill adds considerable verisimilitude to the book with occasional court transcripts from The Territory of Wyoming vs. Dorsey, letters written by the secretary at the Badwater Baptist Church, and a newspaper article from the Laramie Daily Sentinel. Throughout, we hear Dorsey’s side of things as he explains how a number of killings occur around him while he argues his innocence of these crimes beyond his confidence man chicanery. In court, the evidence compounds against him as he’s ultimately convicted of multiple murders.
As the story takes us through many surprising twists and turns, I often thought Dorset is something of a raunchier, rougher, and randier incarnation of Bret Maverick. Had the ‘50s TV show not had to deal with the mores and broadcast codes of the era, perhaps James Garner’s gambling man character might have been more of a kindred spirit with Dorsey who’s never presented as a willingly violent man. He’s a criminal who simply wants to get ahead by hook or crook. The story’s true villains are far darker than either Dorsey or Paris, a seductive girl with increasingly suspect motives. Or perhaps author Magill has cards up his sleeve that he doesn’t want to show until he absolutely has to?
Publicity for Badwater Gospel uses terms like “genre bending, anti-Western, noir, murder mystery.” I suppose several killings can be called mysteries, although Dorsey and most readers will have no difficulty figuring out who’s responsible for the violent deaths. I don’t really know what an “anti-Western” would be, considering all the uses of Western settings in too many dark films to count, TV shows like Deadwood, or novels like this one. I don’t see how The Badwater Gospel bends any genres. And I don’t think any such distinctions really matter. Publicists like to use tag-lines and coin phrases that will draw prospective readers to their offered titles, but sometimes the book can stand on its own with no need of special puffery.
In that light, I’d recommend Badwater Gospel to any adult reader whether they’re fans of Westerns, anti-Westerns, or hard-boiled noir yarns. Gratefully, R.W. Magill has given us well-drawn and very sympathetic protagonists presented in vivid and very believable settings. I’m equally grateful Magill found a very plausible way to tie-off the story with an unexpected but very satisfying conclusion. To say more would be a spoiler. Just know however bloody and vicious the book gets, there’s justice, of a sort, after all.
First posted at BookPleasures.com May 31, 2017 at: